Jan 31, 2024 - Politics
Town Talker

D.C. boomed in the 2010s. It might be Northern Virginia's turn

Illustration of the NOVA logo, but the heart is pixelated and there is a cursor hovering over it.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A roaring '20s may be here for Northern Virginia, a Silicon Valley of the East Coast that could overtake D.C. this decade as the region's "it" place.

Why it matters: Washington's suburbs across the Potomac River have built formidable economies thanks to the federal government, while Virginia Tech's new campus, buzzy restaurants — and possibly next, the Capitals and Wizards — are filling in its "soulless" enclaves.

What's happening: Observers think Northern Virginia has a few things going for it.

  • Amazon HQ2 has lent tech cachet and real jobs.
  • The AI boom in government will boost the tech corridor that stretches to Dulles.
  • The U.S. rivalry with China means business for the military-industrial complex, aka the "death sciences" sector of NoVa.

By the numbers: NoVa's employment has roared back since the pandemic. For example, Fairfax County posted 6% growth between 2019 and 2022 to reach nearly 1 million jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

  • While employers like Fannie Mae plan to vacate ritzy offices in downtown Washington, the District remains 2.7% below pre-pandemic levels in job numbers, according to city stats as of last December.

Fairfax and Arlington have beaten D.C.'s economy in real GDP growth for much of the past five years, according to federal data. (County-level 2023 data isn't out yet.)

Data: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Chart: Axios Visuals

Flashback: Remember "D.C. Cool"? The tourism campaign slogan self-prophesied in 2014 when Forbes declared us the coolest city in America.

  • The District exploded in the 2010s. Bon Appétit began obsessing over our restaurants. LivingSocial was the "it girl" of Washington startups. 1776. D.C. had turned the corner on city hall scandals. The Caps and Nats won championships.

Now, NoVa's prosperity is taking the skylines of Rosslyn and Tysons to new heights. Virginia's borders afford companies (and people) proximity to the power and cultural institutions of the nation's capital while enjoying lower taxes. And there's plenty of land out west.

  • All the while, its success continues to enrich the 21st century's new guard of Beltway elite, startup founders, and executives who have made fortunes selling business to the federal government. (Case in point: The superyacht at The Wharf, owned by McLean entrepreneur Alan Dabbiere.)

What they're saying: "Reston used to be a movie theater, two streets, and the little center there by the fountain," says Jennifer Taylor, who leads the Northern Virginia Tech Council. "It is a mini-city now. And you look at this beautiful skyline now with Microsoft, ICF, and the Google building."

Zoom in: In the D.C. scene's salad days, Blake Hall set up the firm that would become ID.me inside a rowhouse on Swann Street.

  • But he recalls what felt like a "DMV visit on steroids" just to get a business license in the District — and how much easier it was in Virginia, once he relocated his HQ to Tysons in 2012. The digital privacy software company raised $132 million in 2023.
  • "If they're not nurtured … they go to where they get that support," says Victor Hoskins, who was D.C.'s deputy mayor for economic development in the early 2010s. He now leads Fairfax County's Economic Development Authority, which has offices in Europe, Korea, and India, among others.

The other side: Mayor Muriel Bowser, after announcing grants for local businesses this week, said shows like the Broadway musical "Annie" and a push to return more federal workers to the office are helping the city.

  • "Downtown is going to be just fine, and let me just make that perfectly clear," Bowser told reporters at the National Children's Museum.

What's next: Arun Gupta, an area native and professor at Georgetown and Stanford, predicts another wave for the area: startups that serve a mission — whether that be climate change, cybersecurity, or the existential challenge du jour.

  • "The talent here is as good as anywhere else."

✍🏼 I can already feel my fellow Washingtonians rolling their eyes about "National Landing." Town Talker is a column about money and power. Send your tips to [email protected]

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